Raphael’s famous “School of Athens” is in the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican, but what else is in this room, and are its several parts brought into a harmonius whole?

Show Notes

I’ve made it plain that, like just about everyone else, I love Raphael’s “School of Athens.” What makes the painting exciting, as I see it, is that it welcomes great non-Christian thinkers into the bosom of the Catholic Church but can do so only at great risk, for who knows where the philosophic search for truth might lead and whether it can ever come to a settled resting place?

Raphael and those who contributed to the design of the “School of Athens” honored such mathematicians and scientists as Euclid and Ptolemy, but they gave pride of place to the philosophers, and these they honored for their searching, independent of any conclusions they may have reached. Hence, we see thinkers who disagreed sharply, such as Plato and Epicurus, Aristotle and Heraclitus. I can’t think of any other comparable example of a religion that first bases itself on a divine revelation and that then tries to make within itself a home for philosophy and its ceaseless doubting.

But it’s time to cast a glance at the rest of the room, the Stanza della Segnatura, to see better where philosophy is situated. The first and simplest point is to say it is situated in a richly decorated room of overwhelming complexity. Its four walls and ceiling are all painted in fresco, while the pavement is a beautiful design of inlaid ancient marble. It includes over 150 painted figures, allegories, scenes from the Bible and from ancient myth, books with their titles, and Latin inscriptions. If the message of the frescoes is not quickly evident, it is clear that everything in the room is painted with the rest of the room in mind. There is a whole, and it suggests a unified, coherent view of human knowledge or, perhaps, of what we humans need to know, whether we do or not.

Whole books have been written on the room, and it is more than worthy of them. I’ll make only a few points related to my usual themes and won’t be pausing for a book-length study. I hope to get us all ready for a visit, not substitute for one.

Raphael, “Poetry” or “Parnassas,” (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The School of Athens has so far dominated my discussion of the Stanza, but although this fresco is large and beautiful, it does not dominate the room. It is one of four subjects depicted on the four walls, and it is rivaled in size and beauty especially by the fresco that faces it, which represents Theology, or the studies vital to the Catholic Church. Poetry and Jurisprudence are on the flanks and are smaller and further reduced in size because their walls are interrupted by large windows. So, the Stanza implies that the “School of Athens” teaches an important part of what we need, but other studies also deserve our attention.

The Stanza della Segnatura implies an answer to this question: What are the most important fields of study for mankind? Its four walls respond, Philosophy, Theology, Poetry or literature, and Law or Jurisprudence. Don’t just accept this, but give a moment’s thought to how you, or the modern university, might answer this question. Should Raphael be faulted for not having included economics, marketing, or communications? Why did he and his colleague Tommaso Inghirami think philosophy and theology were so important, and were they right?

The ceiling is an intricate puzzle of suggestions or clues about the subjects represented on the walls. It includes personifications, inscriptions, illustrations of

Raphael, “Jurisprudence” or “Law” (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

actions related to the main subjects, and a lot of rich decoration. Everything is situated in a complex geometric design, so the whole of the curving ceiling is organized. Even this is a stunning accomplishment, and I am excited that I’m scheduled to see it again next month.

To begin with the most obvious point, Raphael represents each of his four main subjects on the ceiling by a female personification, and each woman is flanked by little angels, or “putti,” holding inscriptions in Latin. That of Theology is “Divinarum rerum notitia,” which might be translated as “knowledge of divine things,” while that of philosophy is “Causarum cognito,” which might be translated as “knowledge of causes.” These inscriptions invite me to raise again the question I seem always to have on my mind, which is the relationship between Philosophy and Revealed Theology. If we have knowledge of divine things, won’t this amount to knowledge of causes? And if we have knowledge of causes, won’t this amount to knowledge of divine things? The ceiling shows no tension or quarrel between the Theology and Philosophy, and yet there is no figure who appears in both the School of Athens and the fresco representing Theology. Would Aristotle’s study of causes lead him to St. Augustine’s knowledge of the divine things?

The inscription for the wall of Poetry is “Numine afflatur,” which elevates poetry by suggesting that it is inspired by the breath of divinity. Perhaps this helps explain why Dante appears in the fresco representing Poetry as well as the one representing Theology. The fresco suggests his poetry is not only about God, but it is also inspired by Him.

Jurisprudence bears the inscription is “unicuique suum,” which suggests that justice should be tailored to the individual: “To each his due.” The associated fresco contains its own version of the possible tension between philosophy and theology, for it honors both civil law and ecclesiastical law, whose sources and content run the risk of being at variance. Or so we imply when we call for the separation of Church and State.

The ceiling also includes four examples of the subject matter it encourages us to learn, with two of the examples being biblical and two coming from classical sources. Jurisprudence is exemplified by the biblical judgment of Solomon, which reminds us of our occasional need—given the imperfect human condition—to determine who tells the truth and who does not. Here, Solomon gives “to each his due” by cleverly figuring out which of two contradictory claims is true and then acting in accord with it. A second realistic note in the story is that he must threaten to do violence to a baby to learn what he needs to know. The fresco is beautiful, but it is not naïve. We note as well that the associated allegory of Justice is shown with a sword, and she is holding it high. The Stanza della Segnatura seems to me to pay a great tribute to the complex encounter of philosophy and the Bible, which is at the core of Western Civilization, but it does not suggest that we live in a Golden Age or Garden of Eden.

The example that goes with poetry is also harsh: it shows the old pagan myth that the mortal Marsyas was so bold as to compete against the god Apollo in a musical contest, and he was punished severely for his hybris. And the example that accompanies Theology is a representation of the original sin of Adam and Eve, so this too conveys a sober view. The room as a whole is beautiful, but the ceiling also contains reminders of the limits of the human condition and the need for punishment to avoid the worst. It’s an apt moment to recall that the Warrior Pope Julius II was the man who commissioned this room.

Raphael, “Dispute of Holy Sacrament” (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The size, beauty, and complexity of the School of Athens are matched by the fresco that faces it. This remarkable fresco is hierarchically arranged in three zones, with God the Father high above, surrounded by angels. In the middle, Christ is enthroned in heaven, where he is accompanied by the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, and other figures from the Old Testament such as the patriarchs Adam, Moses, David, and Abraham. New Testament martyrs and apostles, including Peter and Paul, are also honored by his company. This realm thus represents the Church Triumphant, that is, those members of the Church who have been raised by grace to sit with Christ in heaven.

On ground level we find the Church Militant, those who are still alive and struggling against sin and the sinful. Raphael includes here learned leaders or “Doctors” of the Latin Church, such as St. Thomas and St. Augustine, and adds the poet Dante and the artist Fra Angelico. Mildly surprising, perhaps, is his inclusion of three popes who were never sainted, the powerful Innocent III, and our Team della Rovere of Julius II and Sixtus IV, but more surprising is the presence of Savonarola, the Dominican friar who attacked the papacy openly while attempting severe moral reform in Florence. But the pope he attacked was the notorious Borgia pope, Alexander VI, who was also a bitter enemy of the future Julius II. Though a Cardinal in the Church, the future pope Julius fled Rome, in part, apparently, to avoid being poisoned by Pope Alexander. So, if our enemy’s enemies are our friends, Julius’ inclusion of Savonarola makes sense. As he implies, then, sometimes the battle against sin requires a battle against a pope.

It seems to me—see whether you agree—that the figures on the terrestrial level of the Disputa are shown to be as animated and engaged as those of the School of Athens. This would suggest that the intellectual activity of understanding theological truth is as engrossing as that of seeking philosophical truth. And the number of books shown in this fresco exceeds the number among the philosophers: this too suggests that theology is a field of study, not merely belief.

This said, bear in mind that this fresco goes by the name the “Disputation of the Holy Sacrament,” but neither it nor the “School of Athens” were given their names by Raphael or his collaborators. The “Disputation” or “Disputa,” did not get its name until decades later. I mention the point because the name might distort the way we look at the fresco. Is there really a dispute here, and if so, how far does it go? Some suggest that the figures in the fresco are gesturing to show their wonder at the mystery of transubstantiation: they are not arguing about it. Since the main figures in the painting appear to be saints or at least members of the Church in good standing, I wonder if and where they disagree. Can theological study be permitted the same scope as philosophical doubt?

There is much more in this room to admire, and I particularly love the treatment of the four cardinal and three theological virtues on the wall devoted to jurisprudence, but I promised myself to keep this Mini Pod from growing into a Maxi. My current plan for next week is to get a start on the Room of Constantine, which turns out to be very different from the Stanza della Segnatura, but no less interesting.

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